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The Lost Discipline

Author and theologian Phyllis Tickle shows us how contemplation is invaluable for Christians today.

If you're like many other Christians, you aren't too familiar with the discipline of contemplation—you may even approach it with skepticism and concern. Those unfamiliar with the practice may guess it's similar to secular meditation, or perhaps assume it means asking yourself existential questions about the meaning of life. Not so, says author and theologian Phyllis Tickle.

True contemplation—the sort that was common practice for Christians prior to the Reformation—is much more than human-bound thought. In fact, living a life of contemplation is so essential to Tickle's faith that if just three hours go by without connecting with God, life "becomes so loud I can hardly think." Read on as she describes not only the definition and history of contemplation, but how this discipline is vital to your faith right now.

Contemplation can be a scary idea for many Christians—especially if we think in terms of mysticism, humanism, or eastern philosophy.

You're right. When we talk about contemplation I get antsy, because we're talking about something that's as much psychological as it is religious. We need to be very clear that biblical contemplation—which has been practiced for centuries—is not about yoga, or about being "good," or "emptying our minds and becoming one with the universe," or about the age-old joke of "contemplating my navel."

So what is the spiritual discipline of contemplation?

It must be in company with the Holy Spirit. It's an invitation to enter into deep conversation with Almighty Father.

Prior to the Reformation, contemplation was a considerable part of the Christian experience. It was fixed in the ancient disciplines, every one of which was a form of contemplation: communion, fasting, fixed-hour prayer, Sabbath observance, observance of the liturgical year, and pilgrimage.

The focus for a Christian has got to be on listening to and meditating with the Holy Spirit. It's much more interested in being holy than in being good. That's an important distinction.

What do you mean by that?

Too many secularists put the focus on being good—we contemplate who we are and why we're here and so on. But as Christians we're not about being good; we're about being holy. In the New Testament Jesus told us over and over that keeping the law isn't necessarily the holy life. We can "do" everything to be good, but our hearts and minds can still be far from God. Holiness involves love and mercy, compassion and just actions. Those qualities and perceptions come not from the head and logic, but from the head and the heart and the soul constantly attuned together to the direction of the Spirit.

When we commune with God, we listen to his voice directing us. Rather than focusing on Why am I here? we focus on Thy will be done now, as well as hereafter—as Jesus taught us in his prayer—and How can I work with God to accomplish his purposes here and now?

Unless this leads to a holy life, it's just the same as non-biblical contemplation.

How do we practice biblical contemplation?

The only contemplation I know and can speak of is prayer. I practice fixed-hour prayer. Having that set appointment to meet with God every day puts me in a place to receive his direction.

But other ways to practice contemplation: Poetry, music, chant—as the monks use it—Bible study. In a sense, these are also forms of prayer, of engaging with God.

When did you first start to pay attention to contemplation as a means of drawing closer to God?

My freshman year in college, I felt an insistent knocking on my soul's door that forced me to spend serious time with God. To other people, I'm sure it looked like a psychological shutdown—I withdrew from everything. But I was busy listening and learning who God is. It seemed so strange, at the time, to withdraw like that, but now I practice that consistently.

What was the Holy Spirit communicating to you during that time?

Where I was supposed to go and that I was his. It seemed so strange, at the time, to withdraw like that, but now I practice that consistently.

Do you ever practice contemplation and not hear God? Does the "well go dry," so to speak?

Of course. I hate when it happens. I think, Okay, now what?

But I've come to recognize that silence from God always precedes a considerable spurt in growth or a new assignment. It's preparatory. And so now I don't fear it. But sometimes I complain. You know? "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?"

If during contemplation we feel that the Holy Spirit is communicating a direction or a command, how do we check that?

{Laughs.} That, my dear, is the $64,000 question.

We must discern the spirits. First John 4:1 tells us, "Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God."

The thing about contemplation is you need to go into that time with a lot of spiritual armor (Ephesians 6:11), and with the spirit of discernment (Psalm 119:125). When you commit to listening to God, you must be spiritually strong enough to recognize and test his voice.

You have to ask, Is what I'm about to do holy? Is what I'm about to speak holy? Is what I'm hearing from God holy? To be a Christian without your mind as well as your heart is a violation of what we're told to do.

The enemy of contemplation is …?

Racket. Noise.

The reason contemplation through fixed-hour prayer works for me is every three hours I stop the racket. After more than three hours, I have a cacophony in there, and it will take me forever to clean it out. On times when I miss a prayer, the subsequent three hours are so loud I can hardly think.

And that's what makes this a discipline.

That's right. The minute you discipline time, you've entered the contemplative life. Practicing the Sabbath, honoring the liturgical calendar, spending time in prayer every day, resting—those are all practices that can lead to living the contemplative life. Every time I'm at a crossroads in my life, I've discerned the way to go because I spent time with the Holy Spirit in contemplation.

Are there bad directions that people take with contemplation? Absolutely. But for the Christian, the goal is to listen to the almighty God. To get away from every distraction and focus on engaging with and pursuing the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives and in the kingdom. God is calling us to live holy lives. Through contemplation, we can hear him more clearly as he directs us toward making a difference in his kingdom.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

Ginger E. Kolbaba

Ginger Kolbaba is the author of Desperate Pastors' Wives and The Old Fashioned Way. Connect with her on Twitter @gingerkolbaba.

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Contemplation; Prayer; Reflection; Rest; Simplicity
Today's Christian Woman, January , 2010
Posted January 1, 2010

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